Mobile World Congress can do better on human rights

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) is the world’s largest gathering for the mobile industry, organised by the GSMA. I was invited to speak on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and privacy in the context of the Internet of Things (IoT). The discussion organised by NXP Semiconductors was lively, and explored diverse perspectives by company representatives, decision-makers, think tanks, and members of civil society. We took the opportunity to share our core message on the GDPR and the IoT: privacy must be at the center of innovation. You can watch a video summary of the discussion here.

We’ve watched the MWC from the outside for some time. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg keynoted the conference from 2014-2016, courting the telecom sector in an effort to push initiatives like Internet.org and Free Basics, Facebook’s zero rated offering. We’ve been speaking out in response as well. Last year we reached out to the new GSMA Director General, asking to work together on threats like internet shutdowns. We also invited GSMA to meet and discuss digital rights, both at MWC and Access Now’s annual conference, RightsCon.

Of course, there are key differences between an event like the MWC and RightsCon. MWC is not a truly multi-stakeholder conference. That’s a problem. The truth is, Access Now and our civil society partners have never felt fully welcome at MWC. Over the four days of the conference, Barcelona was engulfed in a wave of (mostly) men in suits. It’s impressive that more than 100,000 people flew in to attend the conference, including representatives of more than 2,300 companies showing off their newest innovations. The GSMA handled the logistics for this massive event with aplomb, doing an outstanding job of informing and supporting participants. However, we think organisers should be giving just as much careful attention to the issues of inclusion and human rights.

Why a “mobile” conference matters: It’s much more than mobile

The MWC is a business-to-business fair organised by the telecoms industry, but it wasn’t only mobile phones and telcos presenting their products. There was significant representation from the tech, financial, and security industries, all eager to sell their products and services to other firms or governments. Consulting companies such as Accenture were also heavily represented. All of this is an indication of how much “happens” nowadays on our mobile devices; these products and services are central to our lives, and our phones are increasingly the way we access them.

This year’s motto, “the next element”, opened the demo floor to a broad spectrum of technology, from biometric technology to 5G, connected cars to robots, virtual reality to VPNs,  and “smart” everything. However, not everyone got to see all of this; access depended on whether you held a “visitor”, “gold”, “silver”, or “platinum” pass. These passes are extremely expensive, and the limited access added an extra level of elitism to the event. From a civil society perspective, this was alienating and difficult to understand.

The missing element: Human rights and diversity

As a civil society representative, attending MWC can be a reality slap. There was very little diversity. Civil society participation has been declining at the conference over the years, perhaps due to financial barriers, and women were scarce. The gender imbalance and lack of civil society participation can have a negative impact beyond losing out on diverse perspectives. A conference culture that does not value inclusion and respect for all voices can form the foundation for sexual and other kinds of harassment and marginalisation. These are serious threats even at multi-stakeholder gatherings like RightsCon. To be fair, the GSMA has articulated a good anti-harassment policy. But organisers could have done more to inform participants about it, moving it into action.


In an effort to deal with the issue of gender imbalance, GSMA has hosted a separate (but equal?) Connected Women event and programs addressing the gender digital divide, aimed at reducing the “gender gap in mobile internet and mobile money services in low- and middle-income countries and unlock significant commercial and socio-economic opportunities.” However, we submit that the divide will not close until women are participating equally in MWC’s main event, and in the leadership teams of the telcos and other businesses attending and funding it. Every stakeholder in the telecom sector must take action to improve staff diversity and outreach (you can read about our own efforts to cultivate inclusion in our organisation and community here).

In addition, there is the issue of the human rights abuses that some of the companies represented at the conference have neglected to address. Many tech and telecoms companies take their responsibility to respect human rights very seriously, so it is baffling to see that companies known to ignore human rights, or that deliberately put people at risk of abuse, are allowed to promote their rights-harming products, such as surveillance technology. This year at MWC, Viettel, Vietnam’s largest mobile network operator — which is state-owned and operated by the Ministry of Defence — had one of the nicest stands in the exposition. These issues matter, and while GSMA does a lot right at MWC, there is work to done to demonstrate respect for human rights. Access Now is willing to help in that effort.

Will we come back? Yes.

We see a lot of value in attending MWC. It is a great opportunity to engage with the tech, telecoms, and security communities, and all the major actors gather in a single location for the event. The discussions are of high quality, and there is exploration of relevant issues, even if those discussions do not yet appear to influence the overall makeup and organisation of the conference. Civil society expertise can help propel innovation in the tech and telecoms sector, toward more sustainable, rights-respecting products, policies, and services. This ultimately benefits both companies and end-users. So we will continue participating in MWC, to work with people in these industries to ensure that that companies fulfill their human rights obligations, improve their commitment to inclusion, and make better choices for everyone.


Images from GSMA – Mobile World Congress